Israel bombards Gaza’s Rafah amid international condemnation – as tanks reach heart of city

Israel has launched a fresh bombardment of Gaza‘s Rafah, with tanks reaching the heart of the border city, as international condemnation builds over an airstrike that killed dozens of Palestinians at the weekend.

At least 45 people were killed in the strike that caused a large blaze at a camp for displaced people. Hundreds more were treated for severe burns, fractures and shrapnel wounds, according to health ministry officials in the Hamas-run strip.

Witnesses in Rafah said that Israeli tanks had reached the centre of the city by Tuesday morning. Israeli forces pounded the city with airstrikes and tank fire, residents said.

They said the Tel Al-Sultan area in northwest Rafah, the scene of Sunday's deadly strike, was still being heavily bombarded. "Tank shells are falling everywhere in Tel Al-Sultan. Many families have fled their houses in western Rafah under fire throughout the night," one resident told Reuters.

Strikes overnight into Tuesday killed a total of 16 people around Tel al-Sultan, according to the Palestinian Civil Defence and the Palestinian Red Crescent. Israel says it is carrying out limited operations in eastern Rafah, along the Gaza-Egypt border. But residents reported heavy bombardment overnight in western parts of Rafah as well.

"It was a night of horror," said Abdel-Rahman Abu Ismail, a Palestinian from northern Gaza City who has been sheltering in Tel Al-Sultan since December told the Associated Press.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war against Hamas in the city, from where more than one million people have fled in the last three weeks, calling the strike that caused a blaze at a tented area for displaced people a a “tragic mishap”.

“I don’t intend to end the war before every goal has been achieved,” Mr Netanyahu said

Israel’s military initially said it had carried out a precise airstrike on a Hamas compound on Sunday, killing two senior militants. But as details of the strike and fire emerged, the military said it had opened an investigation into the deaths of civilians.

Palestinians search for food among burnt debris in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced people, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 27 May 2024 (Reuters)
Palestinians search for food among burnt debris in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced people, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 27 May 2024 (Reuters)

British foreign minister David Cameron demanded a “swift, comprehensive and transparent” investigation by the Israeli army into Rafah strike.

“Deeply distressing scenes following the air strikes in Rafah this weekend,” Mr Cameron said on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday.

Footage of the strike – shared on media – showed extremely graphic scenes of people running to escape the fire surrounding them.

“We pulled out people who were in an unbearable state,” Gaza civilian Mohammed Abuassa told The Associated Press. “We pulled out children... We pulled out young and elderly people. The fire in the camp was unreal.”

Eklas, 27, who is originally from north Gaza, said: “People died from the fire. People did not know where to run. The fire broke out in the tents. The bodies were burned. I wanted to flee from Rafah to Khan Younis [the largest city in southern Gaza], but I did not have the money for transportation.

“It terrified us all, more than one explosion shook the place. We do not know whether to leave the camp now or whether to stay. We couldn’t sleep last night due to fear, horror, and anxiety.”

Mr Netanyahu, in an address to Israel’s parliament, said on Monday: "Despite our utmost efforts not to harm innocent civilians, last night there was a tragic mistake... We are investigating the incident and will obtain a conclusion because this is our policy."

The strike came two days after the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, ordered Israel to end its military offensive in Rafah, where more than half of Gaza‘s 2.3 million population had sought shelter before Israel’s incursion earlier this month. Tens of thousands of people remain in the area while many others have fled. Around one million people have fled the city, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said on Tuesday.

Mr Netanyahu has been under increasing pressure from both the international community and many withing Israel over the offensive in Gaza. It was triggered by a Hamas attack inside Israel during which around 1,200 people were killed and another 250 taken hostage. International clamour for a ceasefire has been growing, while the families of Israeli hostages have repeatedly called for Mr Netanyahu to bring their loved ones home.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's offensive, Gaza's health ministry says.

Palestinians flee the area of Tal al-Sultan in Rafah with their belongings following renewed Israeli strikes in the city in the southern Gaza Strip on 28 May 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)
Palestinians flee the area of Tal al-Sultan in Rafah with their belongings following renewed Israeli strikes in the city in the southern Gaza Strip on 28 May 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

“We urgently need a deal to get hostages out and aid in, with a pause in fighting to allow work towards a long-term sustainable ceasefire,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Cameron said.

The administration of Joe Biden has told Israel to take every precaution to protect civilians, but the president has faced calls from some fellow Democrats to halt military shipments to Israel.

"Israel has a right to go after Hamas, and we understand this strike killed two senior Hamas terrorists who are responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians," a National Security Council spokesperson said. "But as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians.

French president Emmanuel Macron was more blunt in his criticism, saying "these operations must stop".

"There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians. I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire," he wrote in a post on X.

Italian defense minister Guido Crosetto, in a TV interview, said such bombings are “spreading hatred, rooting hatred that will involve their children and grandchildren”.

The Foreign Office of Germany, which has been a staunch supporter of Israel for decades, said "the images of charred bodies, including children, from the airstrike in Rafah are unbearable."

"The exact circumstances must be clarified, and the investigation announced by the Israeli army must now come quickly," the ministry added. "The civilian population must finally be better protected."

Qatar, a key mediator in attempts to secure a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas, said the Rafah strike could "complicate" talks.

But, Mr Netanyahu has maintained a defiant tone and vowed to fight the battle till Hamas is destroyed. “There is no substitute for absolute victory,” he said during his address, while being heckled by the families of the hostages held in Gaza.

Asserting his willingness to continue with military offensive despite international calls for restraint, he said: "I don’t give up and I won’t give up! I stand up to pressures from home and abroad."